Skip to main content

Is this the end of the world? Why would the gods let this happen?

Pompeii
(2014)

(SPOILERS) Gladiator meets Titanic, and every bit as mechanically fashioned and empty-headed as the pitch sounds. You’d expect nothing better from Paul W Anderson, a technically efficient but soulless director blessed with a determinedly mediocre career. I wouldn’t be surprised if he genuinely believed he was making something of emotional heft and tragic beauty, his chance to win credibility with a sword-and-sandals epic doubling as an almighty tearjerker. In volcano-busting 3D.


I didn’t watch the 3D version, I hasten to add, but the third act disaster movie trappings are clearly intended for those donning such spectacles; flaming molten chunks cascading hither and thither. This section manages to ape both Titanic (rescuing the girl while dodging the villain) and 2012 (outrunning earthquakes, but without the sense of humour). Anderson can put together an action sequence, and he also has a fair eye for integrated effects work, but as his filmography proves he’s never been able to make us care about his characters. This is his first love story, so the failing on this occasion is particularly glaring.


The screenplay is credited to Janet Scott and Lee Batchler (Batman Forever) and Michael Robert Johnson (one of five names on the first Downey Jr Sherlock Holmes) and I can only assume there were no conversations along the lines of “Perhaps we could come up with something better here?” Anderson begins with a quote from Pliny the Younger describing the disaster, which might wrongly suggest attempts at authenticity (Anderson alleges the all the volcano business is accurate geologically accurate… great balls of fire aside – which constitute an unerring threat).


That’s as good as it gets, since everyone here is wretchedly modern in sensibility; not least heroine Cassia (Emily Browning), a headstrong young woman seemingly oblivious to Roman customs and etiquette. But then, she has utterly doting parents (Carrie Anne Moss, perpetually under-used, and Jared Harris; both add a bit of class to the proceedings) who wouldn’t even think of such a backward custom as arranging a marriage for her. She’s like Kate Winslet in Titanic, you see, rebelling against the codes of her time as if granted foreknowledge from the gaudy heights of 21st century California. Accordingly, the makers appear to have done their research by watching Roman epics from the ‘50s.


Her parents live in Pompeii, and daddy is attempting to get funding for a new amphitheatre from Keifer Sutherland’s Senator Corvus. Corvus is a thoroughly rotten rotter; he not only has designs on Cassia, but he killed the parents of poor pouting Milo (Kit Harington) when he was but a wee lamb. Milo subsequently entered slavery only to emerge a positively ripped 20-something kick-ass gladiator (so… slavery’s good for your health regimen?) Most curiously, he’s also a peerless horse whisperer. One wonders where he got the time for such sensitivity amid the arterial spray of bested opponents. Ah, I know; he comes from a tribe of Celtic horsemen, which means it must be in his genes! It also shows he’s a deep and whistful soul, so when he first encounters Cassia she has no choice but to fall for his animal-loving humanity (“Stop! Let him help the horse”; which he does by snapping it’s neck, I have no idea quite how strong you’d need to be to do that – Hulk or possibly Wolverine could manage it – but it seems Milo’s more than got the goods).


This is just the first of numerous unintentionally funny moments throughout, including Milo’s Inigo Montaya revenge fetish and his displays of quite astonishing stoicism (“15 lashes and he didn’t make a sound”). At least Keifer, relishing the chance to play a bad guy, and taking a stab at something approximating his father’s flair for ghoulish refinement, seems to get the joke (one that clearly didn’t dawn on Anderson). During the centre piece gladiatorial, a re-enactment of Corvus’ victory over the Celts is staged by Harris’ Severus. Unfortunately, no one counted on the estimable fighting skills of Milo and pal Atticus (Adele Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and the “Romans” are thoroughly trounced. Turning to his host, Corvus comments “Severus, this is not exactly how I remembered it”. He also makes a point of Alan Rickman-ing excessive orders, with an ever-more frustrated demand to “Kill them! Kill them all!


Anderson is best known for making one half decent movie with Event Horizon, ruining what was commonly held to be a great script for Soldier, killing any last shreds of respect the Alien series had with Alien vs. Predator and inflicting three of the five Resident Evils on the world (he wrote all five; the script for Pompeii is so perfunctory I thought he must have pitched in, but it seems not).  Where he does exhibit a degree of slick competence is in staging action but, like (for example) Len Wiseman, this has little impact because his pictures are so bland and faceless. The introduction to adult Milo sees him kill a series of arena antagonists in slow motion without pausing to adjust his leather skirt; Harington, with ne’er a hair out of place and an expression that’s more sullen than moody, looks like he’s filming a shampoo advert (just look at the post below for the effects of a bracing lava shower on one's perm). It’s no more than you’d expect from the director; he sees Harington playing an affecting and sympathetic character in Game of Thrones, thinks I’ll have some of that guy, but forgets to include any of the ingredients that would allow him to be relatable.


Still, the brutal arena games include some creative moments, the re-enactment chief among them. I’m unconvinced that Milo could do all the amazing things he does without tying his chain in knots, but I’ll let that pass. Less successful is Anderson’s penchant for having his young hero leap upon his adversaries from a great height at any opportunity. When it comes to the all-important eruption, there’s a lot of dashing about and increasingly absurd delays of the inevitable. There are duels aplenty amid the ash and devastation, including a fight to the death in the rubble of the arena (Sasha Roiz enjoys being a bastardly Roman almost as much as Sutherland) and a chariot race through the exploding streets. Atticus even saves a child at one point, who will doubtless die minutes later anyway. But it’s the thought that counts.


Harington and Browning may die in an everlasting clinch, but it only makes dramatic sense to off your protagonists if you care about them. For all the significant failings of his last two movies, James Cameron was able to make audiences care about his love stories. It’s not even necessarily the case that Anderson sets up something cruder than Jimbo. Rather, the latter knows how to fashion the rudiments of character (and they only ever are rudiments). Here, the love story amounts to naught and it’s the readiest explanation of why Pompeii was an expensive bomb ($108m gross worldwide on a $100m budget). It’s so non-descript, so unassumingly derivative, there’s barely a conversation to be had here. Never mind, Resident Evil 6 is just around the corner.





Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

Nanobots aren’t just for Christmas.

No Time to Die (2021) (SPOILERS) You know a Bond movie is in trouble when it resorts to wholesale appropriation of lines and even the theme song from another in order to “boost” its emotional heft. That No Time to Die – which previewed its own title song a year and a half before its release to resoundingly underwhelmed response, Grammys aside – goes there is a damning indictment of its ability to eke out such audience investment in Daniel Craig’s final outing as James (less so as 007). As with Spectre , the first half of No Time to Die is, on the whole, more than decent Bond fare, before it once again gets bogged down in the quest for substance and depth from a character who, regardless of how dapper his gear is, resolutely resists such outfitting.

Big things have small beginnings.

Prometheus (2012) Post- Gladiator , Ridley Scott opted for an “All work and no pondering” approach to film making. The result has been the completion of as many movies since the turn of the Millennium as he directed in the previous twenty years. Now well into his seventies, he has experienced the most sustained period of success of his career.  For me, it’s also been easily the least-interesting period. All of them entirely competently made, but all displaying the machine-tooled approach that was previously more associated with his brother.

Isn’t sugar better than vinegar?

Femme Fatale (2002) (SPOILERS) Some have attempted to rescue Femme Fatale from the dumpster of critical rejection and audience indifference with the claim that it’s De Palma’s last great movie. It isn’t that by a long shot, but it might rank as the last truly unfettered display of his obsessions and sensibilities, complete with a ludicrous twist – so ludicrous, it’s either a stroke of genius or mile-long pile up.

Beer is for breakfast around here. Drink or begone.

Cocktail (1988) (SPOILERS) When Tarantino claims the 1980s (and 1950s) as the worst movie decade, I’m inclined to invite him to shut his butt down. But should he then flourish Cocktail as Exhibit A, I’d be forced to admit he has a point. Cocktail is a horrifying, malignant piece of dreck, a testament to the efficacy of persuasive star power on a blithely rapt and undiscerning audience. Not only is it morally vacuous, it’s dramatically inert. And it relies on Tom’s toothy charms to a degree that would have any sensitive soul rushed to the A&E suffering from toxic shock (Tom’s most recently displayed toothy charms will likely have even his staunchest devotees less than sure of themselves, however, as he metamorphoses into your favourite grandma). And it was a huge box office hit.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) (SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek , but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan . That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.

Moonraker (1979) Depending upon your disposition, and quite possibly age, Moonraker is either the Bond film that finally jumped the shark or the one that is most gloriously redolent of Roger Moore’s knowing take on the character. Many Bond aficionados will no doubt utter its name with thinly disguised contempt, just as they will extol with gravity how Timothy Dalton represented a masterful return to the core values of the series. If you regard For Your Eyes Only as a refreshing return to basics after the excesses of the previous two entries, and particularly the space opera grandstanding of this one, it’s probably fair to say you don’t much like Roger Moore’s take on Bond.

It's something trying to get out.

The Owl Service (1969-70) I may have caught a glimpse of Channel 4’s repeat of  The Owl Service  in 1987, but not enough to stick in the mind. My formative experience was Alan Garner’s novel, which was read several years earlier during English lessons. Garner’s tapestry of magical-mythical storytelling had an impact, with its possession theme and blending of legend with the here and now. Garner depicts a Britain where past and present are mutable, and where there is no safety net of objective reality; life becomes a strange waking dream. His fantasy landscapes are both attractive and disturbing; the uncanny reaching out from the corners of the attic.  But I have to admit that the themes of class and discrimination went virtually unnoticed in the wake of such high weirdness. The other Garner books I read saw young protagonists transported to fantasy realms. The resonance of  The Owl Service  came from the fragmenting of the rural normal. When the author notes that he neve

These are not soda cans you asked me to get for you.

The Devil’s Own (1997) (SPOILERS) Naturally, a Hollywood movie taking the Troubles as a backdrop is sure to encounter difficulties. It’s the push-pull of wanting to make a big meaningful statement about something weighty, sobering and significant in the real world and bottling it when it comes to the messy intricacies of the same. So inevitably, the results invariably tend to the facile and trite. I’m entirely sure The Devil’s Own would have floundered even if Harrison Ford hadn’t come on board and demanded rewrites, but as it is, the finished movie packs a lot of talent to largely redundant end.